Education needed to boost organic yields

Paul Gregory didn’t blink when shown organic yield data from Manitoba.

The figures from the province’s crop insurer suggest organic yields for spring wheat, oats and flax are half the yields of conventional crops.

Gregory, who farms and runs Interlake Forage Seeds in Fisher Branch, Man., said the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp. yield data is “bang on.”

Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. organic yield figures are similar to those from Manitoba. Average organic yields from 2005-14 in Sask-atchewan were:

  • Twenty bushels per acre for spring wheat and durum.
  • Forty-four bu. per acre for oats.
  • Eleven bu. per acre for flax.

Arlan Frick, senior analyst with the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp., said about 400 farmers a year sign up for the company’s organic crop insurance.

“There is sufficient volume of data (acres) that would normally consider this credible data for our insurance program,” he said in an email.

Canadian Organic Trade Association estimates indicate that Sask-atchewan had 764 organic farmers in 2013. Frick said some of them buy conventional crop insurance, but SCIC doesn’t have data on their yields.

“There will be some organic farmers that do not insure at all, and some that insure under the commercial program,” he said. “Therefore, we do not know if these yields are in fact representative of the entire organic farmer population in Saskatchewan; only that they are representative of our insured customer base.” 

Gregory, who buys and sells seed, including organic, said there are professional, full-time organic farmers who achieve yields much higher than 20 bu. for wheat or 11 bu. for flax.

However, many organic growers have another job, and farming is a sideline. Consequently, proper agronomy isn’t a priority.

“(Maybe) they have a problem with phosphate, nitrogen or different weeds. We can see through research that the (yield) potential is there, but they’re not accessing that research,” he said.

“It’s just a total lack of education…. This (yield data) should tell MAFRD (Manitoba Agriculture) that we need a whole lot more extension.”

Laura Telford, organic specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, agreed that organic knowledge and practices are inadequate.

“I think we are a long, long way from optimal (yields),” she said.

“Probably 75 percent of the solution is related to extension.”

Telford said prairie organic growers are moving toward better practices, but more progress is needed.

“What most organic farmers do … is they get in the business and sell a bunch of hay, (but) you quickly mine out your phosphorous and you lose your productivity for years,” she said.

“Simple extension would have solved that…. Now we tell people, ‘yes, alfalfa is a great start but put some manure on it.’ ”

Organic yields may be a fraction of conventional crop yields, but there is more to agriculture than bushels per acre, Telford said.

“Why are we looking at the number of widgets produced rather than profitability?” she said. “I understand that food is different than widgets … but I think that profitability is key. An organic field crop producer just can’t go to the bank and deposit kernels of grain. Like any other (business), they’re depositing cash.”

Telford said organic crops are more profitable than conventional despite lower yields.Organic flax now sells for $38 per bu. Assuming a yield of 11 bu. per acre, an organic flax crop generates revenues of $418 per acre.

In comparison, a conventional flax crop, assuming an average yield of 22 bu. per acre and a price of $13 per bu., will generate $286 per acre.

And when considering that the cost of growing an organic crop is less than conventional, the potential profits in organic can be huge.

“To me, it’s all about profitability,” Telford said. “I know we’ve got to feed the world, but you’ve got to feed your family first.”

Yield is certainly important, but the sustainability of a food production system should also be considered. One important measuring stick is the amount of energy required to produce a unit of food.

“We are talking about alternative agriculture, and we have to be open to alternative performance measures,” she said. “Organic relies much more heavily on renewable energy sources such as solar and having plants and bacteria fix nitrogen, rather than relying on fossil fuels.”

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